Culture

Welcome to Kingston, the world’s dancehall mecca

A celebration of the dancers, producers, DJs, and sound system men whose intense devotion to their creative lives makes the city hum with possibility.
Culture

Welcome to Kingston, the world’s dancehall mecca

A celebration of the dancers, producers, DJs, and sound system men whose intense devotion to their creative lives makes the city hum with possibility.

Depending on who you ask, Jamaicans basically invented hip-hop, the remix, pretty much everything you’ll see a DJ do during their set at a festival, and the whole idea of the huge sound system you’re listening to. Kingston, the Jamaican capital, has been immensely influential on modern music — and specifically, for reggae and dancehall lovers across the world, going to Kingston is a necessary pilgrimage. It’s commonly said that reggae is the heartbeat of Jamaica, as the genre’s walking bass lines both reflect and inform the fundamental rhythms of life on the island. In my conception, dancehall, which evolved as a real time, street level explication of social and political strife, is the nation’s overclocked nervous system.

Drive around Kingston at any hour day or night and you will hear music playing loudly everywhere. It seems like every block has its own small bar with an oversized DIY sound system blasting the latest dancehall, or maybe a Shania Twain hit drenched in laser sound effects and air horn samples. While dancehall is a global business, what makes or breaks a dancehall artist or song in Jamaica are the street dances. These parties are held weekly in strip mall plazas, street corners, bars and empty lots, where hundreds of people come to push the culture forward.

My photography career started a decade ago in Kingston, where my boss, a formidable booking agent named Sharon Burke, paid my rent in exchange for me shooting a series of lavish all-inclusive holiday parties. I’ve returned every year since, deepening my relationship and respect for the creative communities of Jamaica. This photo series is a celebration of dancehall, and the dancers, producers, DJ’s, and sound system men whose intense devotion to their creative lives makes the city hum with possibility.

Orville Swaby Senior secures the baffles of an 18” subwoofer he is building for a local soundsystem. Considered one of the best speaker builders and electrical engineers in Jamaica, Orville’s yard sees a constant influx of sound system men seeking to upgrade their sounds, have equipment repaired, and talk about legendary sounds, clashes, selectors, and DJs.

Orville Swaby Senior secures the baffles of an 18” subwoofer he is building for a local soundsystem. Considered one of the best speaker builders and electrical engineers in Jamaica, Orville’s yard sees a constant influx of sound system men seeking to upgrade their sounds, have equipment repaired, and talk about legendary sounds, clashes, selectors, and DJs.

A young sound system building apprentice under the tutelage of Orville Swaby in the Greenwich Farm neighborhood of Kingston. Orville’s speaker building, amplifier building and electronic repair business is a direct lineage from the Jamaican electrical engineers who served in the British Royal Air Force in World War II as radio technicians. The men who returned became the first electrical engineers creating amplifiers, crossovers and other electronics for the earliest sound systems and recording studios in Kingston.

A young sound system building apprentice under the tutelage of Orville Swaby in the Greenwich Farm neighborhood of Kingston. Orville’s speaker building, amplifier building and electronic repair business is a direct lineage from the Jamaican electrical engineers who served in the British Royal Air Force in World War II as radio technicians. The men who returned became the first electrical engineers creating amplifiers, crossovers and other electronics for the earliest sound systems and recording studios in Kingston.

Shanique Marie stands outside of Equiknoxx Music HQ in Kingston. Her group’s outer orbit dancehall productions have found a deep following within the global weird electronic music cognoscenti.

Shanique Marie stands outside of Equiknoxx Music HQ in Kingston. Her group’s outer orbit dancehall productions have found a deep following within the global weird electronic music cognoscenti.

DJ Afifa outside of Di Institute for Social Leadership, an arts and culture-focused community center she founded. “I make spaces inspired by music,” she says. “These community spaces are for exploring discovering and creating together. I am always thinking about them as a creation from an African idea; by African I mean something ancient in the place where my ancestors come from. The memory of our ancestry and the ideas and principles which come from how those before us who are like us lived is eroding. Enslavement was the beginning of the erosion. Living in country with a colonial history you have to fight that erosion everyday as you are told to practice being someone else other than yourself.”

DJ Afifa outside of Di Institute for Social Leadership, an arts and culture-focused community center she founded. “I make spaces inspired by music,” she says. “These community spaces are for exploring discovering and creating together. I am always thinking about them as a creation from an African idea; by African I mean something ancient in the place where my ancestors come from. The memory of our ancestry and the ideas and principles which come from how those before us who are like us lived is eroding. Enslavement was the beginning of the erosion. Living in country with a colonial history you have to fight that erosion everyday as you are told to practice being someone else other than yourself.”

Baby Demus (center) sits outside of the home studio of Pliers, another local star, in Portmore. Kingston and Portmore are home to hundreds of small recording studios, many owned by artists, who mentor and support a cadre of performers, producers and musicians.

Baby Demus (center) sits outside of the home studio of Pliers, another local star, in Portmore. Kingston and Portmore are home to hundreds of small recording studios, many owned by artists, who mentor and support a cadre of performers, producers and musicians.

DJ Wayne Ed pauses to roll a spliff while recording a new mix for Presto Mix, a soundsystem crew that throws parties. To his right are the custom built speaker boxes which make up the formidable sound. Once the mix is done, it will be sold throughout Kingston and Jamaica as a CD-R and uploaded to YouTube.

DJ Wayne Ed pauses to roll a spliff while recording a new mix for Presto Mix, a soundsystem crew that throws parties. To his right are the custom built speaker boxes which make up the formidable sound. Once the mix is done, it will be sold throughout Kingston and Jamaica as a CD-R and uploaded to YouTube.

DJs including Danny Dread (far right) chat in a classic style over instrumental versions of classic reggae and dancehall played on 7” vinyl at Caveman Studios.

DJs including Danny Dread (far right) chat in a classic style over instrumental versions of classic reggae and dancehall played on 7” vinyl at Caveman Studios.

Shelly-Belly, a prominent dancehall dancer on set for the video for exiled pharaoh Vybz Kartel’s “Real Bad Gal.” Despite having gone to prison for murder in 2014, the “Worl’ Boss” continues to be dancehall’s brightest star. Prodigious before his imprisonment, fans and industry insiders once speculated that the “new” music released after his imprisonment was, in fact, older tracks being pulled from hard drives. Four years later, it has become clear that despite his incarceration, Kartel somehow continues to have access to professional recording equipment.

Shelly-Belly, a prominent dancehall dancer on set for the video for exiled pharaoh Vybz Kartel’s “Real Bad Gal.” Despite having gone to prison for murder in 2014, the “Worl’ Boss” continues to be dancehall’s brightest star. Prodigious before his imprisonment, fans and industry insiders once speculated that the “new” music released after his imprisonment was, in fact, older tracks being pulled from hard drives. Four years later, it has become clear that despite his incarceration, Kartel somehow continues to have access to professional recording equipment.

Katrina dances on stage at Hellshire Beach in Portmore.

Katrina dances on stage at Hellshire Beach in Portmore.

A dancer goes “pon di head top” on the back of a motorcycle while DJ Ruxie and Jazzy T play the latest dancehall singles.

A dancer goes “pon di head top” on the back of a motorcycle while DJ Ruxie and Jazzy T play the latest dancehall singles.

The Ultimate Warrior Soundsystem stands triumphant in a parking lot of Silver Slipper Plaza. Powered by 22 car batteries, mobile sound systems like this have become a popular replacement for traditional “box” sounds because they don’t require an entire crew of workers to setup, breakdown or transport them.

The Ultimate Warrior Soundsystem stands triumphant in a parking lot of Silver Slipper Plaza. Powered by 22 car batteries, mobile sound systems like this have become a popular replacement for traditional “box” sounds because they don’t require an entire crew of workers to setup, breakdown or transport them.

A custom hand made speaker stack for the sound system Presto Mix, tarped against impending rainfall at 1 AM before the beginning of Day Rave Thursdays, a popular weekly party in Greenwich Farm, Kingston. The party usually starts around 3 AM and runs until well after sunrise.

A custom hand made speaker stack for the sound system Presto Mix, tarped against impending rainfall at 1 AM before the beginning of Day Rave Thursdays, a popular weekly party in Greenwich Farm, Kingston. The party usually starts around 3 AM and runs until well after sunrise.

Dancers Energy, Expensive, Dolly Body, and Cocky Ninja flex on a bike under the “video light” at Whappinz Thursdays. Before highspeed internet, Instagram, and Facebook streaming, the important street dances in Kingston were recorded on a camcorder attached to a clamplight by a videographer called the “Video Light Man.” Within 24 hours of the end of an important street dance,  DVDs of the party would be available in Jamaican shops in Toronto and New York. Eventually, these videos were uploaded directly to YouTube, and now clips from each dance will circulate on Instagram, or be streamed live. A dance invented and performed in Kingston on Thursday morning can now easily become part of a dancehall class taught in Tokyo on Friday afternoon.

Dancers Energy, Expensive, Dolly Body, and Cocky Ninja flex on a bike under the “video light” at Whappinz Thursdays. Before highspeed internet, Instagram, and Facebook streaming, the important street dances in Kingston were recorded on a camcorder attached to a clamplight by a videographer called the “Video Light Man.” Within 24 hours of the end of an important street dance, DVDs of the party would be available in Jamaican shops in Toronto and New York. Eventually, these videos were uploaded directly to YouTube, and now clips from each dance will circulate on Instagram, or be streamed live. A dance invented and performed in Kingston on Thursday morning can now easily become part of a dancehall class taught in Tokyo on Friday afternoon.

Dancers at Hellshire Beach in Portmore find a dark corner to share next to the ocean. In a long lineage of naming neighborhoods of Jamaica after global warzones, Portmore, a city directly West of Kingston is affectionately referred to as “Gaza.”

Dancers at Hellshire Beach in Portmore find a dark corner to share next to the ocean. In a long lineage of naming neighborhoods of Jamaica after global warzones, Portmore, a city directly West of Kingston is affectionately referred to as “Gaza.”

A dancer dances at sunrise in front of a massive speaker column in Mystic Plaza, Kingston. At a certain volume, bass frequencies begin to vibrate not just the eardrum but the cells of the body itself.

A dancer dances at sunrise in front of a massive speaker column in Mystic Plaza, Kingston. At a certain volume, bass frequencies begin to vibrate not just the eardrum but the cells of the body itself.

Taliesin Gilkes-Bower is a photographer and artist whose work covers power, culture, and space.